By Greg Bem
“We’re all working hard every day on composing seventeen or so words that will decorate our headstones.” (from “Bitter Pills,” page 41)
Thomas Walton’s a poet’s poet. But not only in the ways you might think. He writes poems with allusions, with complex symbols, and with a literary imperative, but his writing also expresses a more automatic, emergent language, a language reflecting a growing relationship with the surrounding world. And Walton’s latest book is a poet’s book that captures this, but it’s also difficult to pin down, challenging to categorize and understand, as we are sometimes wanting to do with poetry. All the Useless Things are Mine—the title is bearably funny while also being deadpan. When it comes to the poems, this is a collection with a name fittingly accurate and inaccurate all the same—there’s a lot here, and it might be useless, and it might be useful, but to Thomas, it’s a matter of taste and curiosity, the poet finding their self and their voice emerging from a world that is inconsequentially available.
Let’s step back. Let’s see this availability in form. The book, on the surface, is a collection of Thomas’s 17-word aphorisms, loosely packed and fitting nicely into rigid and flexible sequences of theme. Thomas is following up last year’s investigation of marriage failings, dutiful fatherhood, and a relentless commitment to Gertrude Stein, The World Is All That Does Befall Us (Ravenna Press, 2019), and the previous year’s collaborative investigation of art history in Rome, The Last Mosaic (with poet Elizabeth Cooperman, Sagging Meniscus Press, 2018). To say Thomas is on a roll would be underwhelming; Thomas’s newest release flows (or stems) from both of his predecessors. Each aphorism is a statement. It harkens to the lyrical essay. But each aphorism lives on its own in a slightly more liberated (open?) circumstance.
“Concentration is a kind of levitation, and when you’re in the clouds it’s easy to love indiscriminately.” (from “All Poets Are Lunatics,” page 63)
The titles of each sequence, each “poem,” tend to be wayfinding tools if anything. Each adds subtext to the aphorisms within. “At the Crack of Up” and “All Poets Are Lunatics” and “I Guess I Don’t Travel Much” are a few examples of Walton’s layering of humor. “Love and Sex” and “Birdsong” and “The Afterlife” balance things out. And this is a book of balance, despite its sprawl and flexibility. The poems are compacted nicely into a book that feels nice. Like the others mentioned above, this collection is also a relatively small physical shape. It can fit in most pockets. It can be pulled out and examined in a flash, or a breath, and repocketed for future engagement.
Or, for readers like myself, it is a book of deception. The book feels small, but the print is as well. And the aphorisms keep on coming. I devoted an entire evening to reading it—and it took the entire evening! Such is the way of Walton’s latest works, which drag and twirl mesmerizingly. The lack of any narrative structure, any overall argument, entraps the reader further. Stepping into All the Useless Things are Mine is a visit to the poppy field, a long beach with ceaseless tidal crashings, a labyrinth not of “how” or “why” but of “when.”
Time, duration, mortality—the nature of our beating hearts—these qualities blossom within this text through the inclusivity of Douglas Miller’s etchings and drawings. The images are straightforward—household objects, animals, insects, trees—each page-long visual is presented in stark black and white. The materials used feel rough and emergent. There is a flow to the scrapes and scratches upon the page. Some images feel rough, even resembling drafts through the presence of outlines. But the they are also hardly such; as documents of the creative process, Miller’s visuals resemble the fixity of Walton’s seventeen-word form. Whether they contain everything or only part, they are complete and gorgeous. The sense of emptiness, of incompleteness, juxtaposed with the reality of finality instills a haunting (or chilling) effect: it is existential. This is what we have, and this is when we have it—the now, the immediate, the temporary.
“I walked out with her, looking hard at things, hoping to break into living with my eyes.” (from “Do Your Job,” page 26)
The temporary is linked through the visual, and the visual is mighty in Walton’s aphorisms. It is a construct, a poet’s world, remembering, assembling, forever revisiting. It is moving; this poet’s world is a space, a field, ever-expanding and ever-enveloping one and the same. What often does not translate into a book-length work, which is often confronting form on a large scale, with distinct purpose and message, is how that world’s expansion and envelope is fluid and in flux. Walton’s previous works alluded to the phenomenon of the everyday poetic practice, and All the Useless Things are Mine dives right in. While not a daybook or journal, it still reminds us that the notes, the scrawl, the scribbling existed to lead into the book. There are roots. There is the prototypical core.
Intimately, Walton’s latest work allows the reader to feel like we’re walking down the block, resting in the park, holed up under some bushes in a garden, or off in some shadowy nook of a house. But not to linger—to merely capture the moment, to create a literary impression—and then to move on. Walton’s work is once again spirited, and balanced within the two covers that hold it close. And yet the fluidity and sprawl of the world Walton has documented, like the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the walking poems of Frank O’Hara, or the contemporary American Sentences of Paul E. Nelson, insists on the “something more” of process, of origins, and of linearity’s charm.
You can find the book here: https://www.saggingmeniscus.com/catalog/all_the_useless_things_are_mine/
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.